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updated 9/25/2010 3:47:09 PM ET 2010-09-25T19:47:09

When exterminators arrive at bedbug-infested homes, they need to prepare themselves to vanquish more than just the pests. Waiting at the door are often hysterical homeowners, strung out from sleep deprivation, who need their anxieties eliminated along with the creepy critters.

Among the most personal of parasites, bedbugs inspire such terror because they attack during sleep, sucking out bits of blood and leaving itchy welts – and emotional scars – in their place.

The latest resurgence, heavily reported nationwide, in private dwellings and public landmarks alike, has unquestionably been a boon to the pest control industry's bottom line. But it has also required exterminators to don a second hat as on-the-spot psychologists for panicked clients. [ Bedbugs: The Life of a Mini-Monster (Infographic) ]

"Bedbug customers are uniformly pretty intense and most of them are exasperated," said C.W. Mayberry, service manager with Alexandria Pest Services in Alexandria, Va. "They want it gone and they want it gone now, but I have to explain that an instant fix isn't possible. I wish I had a magic wand, but I don't."

Treatment options

A typical treatment course consists of two or three pesticide applications over a two-week period, Mayberry said. Homeowners must also spend a significant amount of time before treatment bagging up personal belongings such as clothes and bedding, which should be machine-dried on the hottest setting for at least 20 minutes.

Hungry hitchhikers that they are, bedbugs – which do not carry disease – often spread by stowing away in travelers' luggage, and once established they hide around bed frames and mattresses, furniture, curtains and carpet edges.

Their presence, however, does not signal uncleanliness – a worry that seems to torment many hapless homeowners. Because of the stigma, pest professionals are often pummeled with a set of demands that offset their customers’ embarrassment before even inspecting a home.

"Don't tell the neighbors!" Jason Guy was ordered by one homeowner, who pounced on him upon arrival, asking, "What did I do to make this happen?"

Guy, a regional manager for Terminix in the Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the northern Virginia region, said a big part of calming clients is simply educating them that bedbugs are equal-opportunity pests that don't care if you’re rich or poor, clean or dirty.

"We reassure them that it's nothing they did, and there's nothing they could have done to prevent it," Guy said. "There's a lot of comfort when things are explained."

"It's an educational process and definitely an empathetic process," agreed John Paul Miller, service manager at Miller Pest Control in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It definitely takes the cake as far as difficult calls go."

Phantom infestations

Like Guy and Mayberry, Miller has confronted the flip side of bedbug fear : homeowners who feel absolutely certain they have the creatures and cannot be convinced they're wrong. Such scenarios often result in repeated calls and visits, but the exterminators try to balance the annoyance with an understanding born of experience.

"I spend a lot of time just listening to them," Mayberry said. "When they can openly express their concerns to you, it gives them a great deal of comfort. You have to inspire some degree of confidence in them and get them through it."

How does an actual psychologist feel about the pseudo-mental health role pest professionals play?

Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in private practice in State College, Pa., endorses any support that helps those in the midst of a stressful experience such as bedbug infestation.

"They're the soldiers getting rid of these enemies," Rodino said. "The fact that they literally are the exterminators can be very reassuring to people. I think people need to feel they're being taken care of."

 

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